Issue No. 148

Wishing you and yours a happy holiday season here at The Orbital Index! We hope you're able to spend time with friends and family over the next few weeks and take some time away from work (unless you’re on the JWST launch team!). We appreciate all of you and always love connecting with our readers—so don’t hesitate to reach out.

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 148 | Dec 22, 2021

🚀 🎁 🛰

Crossing our fingers for the JWST. The James Webb Space Telescope, the “most powerful and complex space telescope ever built,” will hopefully launch on Christmas Day after having been delayed a first time due to a communication issue between the observatory and the launch vehicle and then again for bad weather. First funded in 1996 and repeatedly delayed, the telescope is now 13 years behind schedule and $4.7 billion over budget (it was originally estimated at $1.6B during early planning, but the realistic estimate on construction approval in 2008 was ~$5B, and it ended up costing $9.7B). JWST is a long-wavelength telescope with 18 hexagonal, individually-controlled, gold-plated beryllium mirror segments that fold out after launch into a ‘golden sunflower’ to create a whopping 6.5-meter diameter mirror—over six times the collecting area of Hubble’s puny 2.4 m aperture. Observing in infrared, JWST will be able to see old and distant highly redshifted objects that Hubble cannot and that we have trouble seeing from the ground due to Earth’s atmospheric opacity to many infrared bands. These distant objects will hopefully tell us about early star and galaxy formation. JWST should also be able to study exoplanet atmospheres, Kuiper belt objects, and even Saturn-sized exoplanets. To keep the onboard imagers and spectrometers cold enough for these infrared observations, JWST will orbit 1.5 million km away at the Earth-Sun L2 point (three times the distance to the Moon) and utilize a complex, multi-layered sunshield (image) to stay below 50 K. Orbiting at L2 requires fuel for station keeping, giving JWST a 10-year lifespan, with observations hopefully starting in about six months. Here’s wishing for a Starship servicing mission that can be put together in the early 2030s to keep the science flowing! Also, JWST’s deployment process involves 50 deployments and 344 single-points of failure. As Thomas Zurbuchen said, “Those who are not worried or even terrified about this are not understanding what we are trying to do.”

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Parker Solar Probe touched the Sun. During its close approach in April, while moving 142 km/s, the Parker Solar Probe entered the Sun’s corona for the first time—or, if you will, touched the Sun. Here’s a video showing streams of particles from the Sun’s corona streaking across the probe’s view as it passed just 18.8 solar radii (13 million km) above the surface. During this close approach, the craft crossed the Alfvén critical surface—where the velocity of solar particles becomes locally supersonic meaning interactions cannot propagate back to the Sun—forming the end of the Sun’s atmosphere and the beginning of the solar wind (paper). Scott Manley put together an explainer with nice visuals. (Since April, PSP has made two even closer passes, but the analysis has yet to be released.) To survive temperatures up to 1,400° C during future approaches within 6.1 million km of the surface (8.86 solar radii), the craft uses an 11.4 cm-thick carbon-composite heat shield. The only unprotected component, the Solar Probe Cup, is made of tungsten and a titanium-zirconium-molybdenum alloy with a melting point of 2,349° C (paper).

SpaceX’s culture must change. This week, the latest in a string of SpaceX (and Tesla) sexual harassment lawsuits and allegations was published (1, 2, 3). The most recent account details a reality that is, sadly, a seemingly common occurrence at SpaceX: HR does little or nothing when acts of harassment and discrimination are reported to them. This experience has been corroborated by other current and former SpaceX employees publicly, as well as privately within our own network. The lack of appropriate response leads to a normalization of harassment and ultimately to reduced internal and external reporting. The company’s singular focus on “the mission” and their adoption of “hustle” culture from the tech startup world breeds a particular minimization of these challenging and exceptionally important issues. While SpaceX is not alone in dealing with harassment and discrimination—all large companies do to some extent—they have some serious problems to address. We feel that SpaceX must come to terms with the reality that it is not meeting the basic needs of its employees for a safe and healthy workplace. The company must not try to pay off, litigate, or gloss over this latest account—the mission and the people that execute that mission are equally important.

SpaceX’s other activities. The company also made some significant headlines for more positive things this week:

  • Booster 4 was lifted onto the orbital launch mount for testing. Elon shared a video of the gimbaled Raptors completing a steering test (below). The first orbital test flight, made up of Booster 4 and Ship 20, should have an environmental impact decision from the FAA by Dec 31st.
  • Starship may gain three additional vacuum-optimized Raptor 2s to increase the craft’s thrust-to-weight ratio (bringing it to a total of 9 engines on the reusable upper stage), along with stretched tanks to feed them.
  • SpaceX launched three Falcon 9s (including two in one day, a first): a Starlink mission aboard the fleet-leading B1051 booster for a record eleventh time (and successfully recovering it for a potential 12th), TurkSat 5B (which has an expected 35-year lifespan!), and CRS-24 to the ISS. These launches bring SpaceX to 100 successful booster recoveries, a striking accomplishment given that no other first stage of an orbital rocket has *ever* been reused. 🚀 ⬆️ ⬇️ ⛴
  • Musk said on Twitter that SpaceX is starting a program to convert atmospheric CO2 into methane and oxygen for use as rocket fuel. This will almost certainly use the Sabatier process, which runs hot, pressurized CO2 and hydrogen over a (generally) nickel catalyst to generate methane and water (which can then be electrolyzed into oxygen and hydrogen which is fed back into the system). The Sabatier process has been deployed terrestrially at the 93% efficient MINERVE syngas facility in France and is also used (with mixed results) on the ISS for CO2 scrubbing. A rough estimate of the power needed to generate Starship + Super Heavy’s 1,012 tons of methane is ~16.8 GWh, roughly equivalent to a week of production from a 400 MW Texas solar farm. Assuming this isn’t greenwashing, it’ll be quite an undertaking.
Gimbaled Raptors completing a thrust vector control (TVC) steering test. Super Heavy's Raptors have a gimbal range of 15°. 
News in brief. A Chinese Kuaizhou-1A solid-fuel rocket failed during launch, losing Geespace’s first two experimental autonomous car navigation satellitesBill Gates’s Breakthrough Energy Ventures led a $65 million round in STOKE Space, builder of a small rocket with a reusable upper stage that sounds like a mini-Starship (watch their intro video)Due to BE-4 engine delays, ULA's Vulcan debut may slip to 2023 As Yusaku Maezawa returned to Earth, Roscosmos plans to increase crewed Soyuz MS production to four per year to meet space tourism demand Ingenuity has now flown 17 18 times, racking up a total flight time of 30 min 32 min and 52 seconds and distance of 3.7 km.

The only total solar eclipse of 2021, on Dec 7th, occurred over Antarctica and was caught by EPIC aboard NASA’s DSCOVR spacecraft orbiting at the Earth-Sun L1 point. (JWST will be at the Earth-Sun L2.)

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